Biff America: Free muffins and unwanted attention (column)
When I asked big Mike Coolidge if he was competing in water ballet, he denied it.
Mike is middle-aged, over 200 lbs., and built like a linebacker. So my query was rhetorical.
Both Mike and I were at the bank. He was doing some financial transaction while I was cashing a 20 as an excuse to take home some muffins that the bank provides every Saturday. Wanting to make it easy on the teller, I asked for four 5s when big Mike greeted me. I had not noticed him standing there 5 feet away. His appearance was startling; he looked wonderful — maybe 20 lbs. lighter and 10 years younger.
The two of us and a handful of female bankers were the only folks in sight. My voice was a little loud when I exclaimed, “Damn dude, you look hot!”
All eyes turned to Mike. He looked uncomfortable and I felt embarrassed so I felt obliged to add, “Are you still competing in water ballet?” Michael laughed and the tellers smiled and he responded, “No water ballet, just been trying to exercise and eat better.”
Compliments are a tricky thing. If you say to someone, “You look great!” that also can imply that they had not looked so good before. And when a guy compliments a member of the opposite sex, it is particularly tricky both because of that aforementioned assumption, but also because it infers that you’ve been checking them out.
Many years ago, I took a break from my freelance career of mispronouncing words on TV and radio and accepted a job with a real network. This career move was both good and bad. There was a corporate philosophy of quality broadcasting with which I was unacquainted — and health insurance. Along with health and dental benefits, they hosted these touchy/feely seminars, clinics and gatherings. Included was a mandatory team building retreat; I attended kicking and screaming.
They hired a facilitator who made us do some lame group initiatives, exercises and trust fall stuff. One example was: He handed each of us 15 index cards — one for each person in the room. We were asked to write an anonymous compliment for each of the other folks attending. The plan was, once completed, the facilitator would read aloud all those tributes and we’d all feel good about ourselves.
It would have been difficult for me to write a compliment for most of those attending, as I barely knew them. So rather than lie, I wrote 15 compliments about myself and handed them in.
If the guy running the show noticed that I was receiving an inordinate amount of compliments, each more effusive than the last, he did not let on.
So while all other employees were getting kudos like “Erin remains calm during equipment failure” and, “Jon comes well prepared for his interviews,” mine were, “Biff has washboard abdominals.” Soon, there was an obvious discomfort in the room. The sentiment seemed to be that it was OK to acknowledge someone’s demeanor and skill set but not their appearance. It wasn’t until the facilitator read; “Biff’s butt is hard enough to crack an egg on” that the jig was up.
Now to be clear, this was over two decades ago. But were it to happen in today’s times of heightened work place sensibilities, I could have filed a harassment claim against myself.
There is a long overdue sense of proprietary now in the work place and society in general. It used to be that a guy like me could make the observation that a guy like me had legs like a Rockette and no one would be offended. Now because of the atrocious behavior of the likes of Weinstein, Roy Moore, Kevin Spacey (and Garrison Keeler??? Who’s next, Santa Claus?) we have to be sensitive that compliments — even to ourselves — can cause discomfort.
Swinish-like behavior is not confined to either party. But it is mostly confined to men, often powerful men. We are a loutish gender of a flawed species. But there is hope. It seems as if every generation has evolved — though agonizingly slowly. The once state-sanctioned segregation, laws against homosexuality and interracial marriage, are now only a historical embarrassment.
Though it does seem that many powerful men have progressed much more sluggishly than our nation. Perhaps with the plague of horrible behavior of public figures, brought to light by brave victims, workplace abuse and misogyny will embarrass our historians as does segregation.
I left the bank with two purloined muffins while Mike emerged empty handed. I was impressed by his discipline that seemed to be responsible for his new physique. He seemed to stare at my baked goods with envy. I’m sure he wanted to say, “Nice muffins!” but being a gentleman he kept those thoughts to himself….
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Biff’s new book “Mind, Body, Soul.” is available at local shops and bookstores.
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